Cars and trucks on the Beltway by ehpien licensed under Creative Commons.

With federal action limited on climate change, states have been stepping up to do their part. The latest move is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, an alliance among states from Maine to Virginia, plus DC, to reduce transportation-related emissions.

The TCI builds on a successful program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Eleven northeastern states have banded together to cut down on emissions from power plants using a “cap and trade” system. That allows energy companies to essentially sell the right to pollute, but capped at a certain level, with the cap shrinking each year.

RGGI states reduced emissions from power plants over 40% between 2005 and 2015, even while the economy grew.

States begin addressing transportation emissions

Trying to build on that success, leaders started to tackle transportation with the TCI, aimed at harmful emissions from cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Transportation is responsible for 43% of greenhouse gas emissions in the TCI jurisdictions.

“It’s time now to turn towards transportation,” said Chris Bast, Chief Deputy, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “The complete lack of action at the federal level means states and DC must come together to protect our future and our health,” said Lindsey Mendelson, Clean Transportation Representative at the Maryland Sierra Club.

DC, Maryland, and Virginia all are participating in the TCI, which according to 2019 modeling has the potential to greatly reduce the region’s climate impact, up to triple the reductions from RGGI.

For the TCI, companies that sell transportation fuel will bid at regular intervals, probably quarterly, for the right to emit carbon. In both RGGI and TCI, the signing jurisdictions define the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions under the cap.

Transportation emissions had already been falling due to increased fuel efficiency, although not nearly enough to meet the targets states have set to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions in transportation had been projected to fall by 19% from 2022 to 2032, but that has changed.

With the Trump administration rolling back vehicle fuel efficiency standards, plus low gas prices, the latest modeling shows only a 6% drop. The TCI would counteract this trend.

The states still must agree on how hard to fight pollution

How much the TCI will reduce emissions is up to the states, and that’s not yet decided. Possible levels range from 20% reduction from 2022 to 2032 to a more aggressive 25%.

The TCI began with a 2010 Declaration of Intent, signed by DC, Maryland, Virginia—which joined in 2018—and ten other states. In December 2019, the group announced a draft Memorandum of Understanding, which states could sign onto to more formally begin establishing the TCI system and work out the specific details, such as the cap level.

While a final decision of the exact rules was expected this spring, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this until the fall of 2020. At that time, each state (and DC) will decide whether to formally sign on. The agreement is supposed to take effect in 2022, though it is possible the pandemic could delay that timetable.

If implemented properly, the TCI could mean cleaner skies and health benefits in reduced asthma, heart disease, strokes, and other conditions. Indeed, TCI projections suggest between 306 and 1,014 fewer premature deaths in 2032 as a result of the program, with far fewer illnesses and fewer traffic injuries. The advantages are even more evident since COVID-19 fatalities have been linked to air pollution.

Implementing the TCI could also spur employment, especially important in post-pandemic times, said Mendelson. Much TCI money would likely fund public transit, which creates 70% more jobs than road building, according to a recent Transportation for America study. Maintenance and operating costs are especially important job engines. Mendelson explained, “Every $1 billion invested in transit also creates over 50,000 jobs.”

Where will the money go?

Reducing emissions isn’t the only significant element of the TCI. It uses what’s called “cap and invest,” in which the money generated by sales of carbon emissions goes to fund projects for cleaner transportation.

As it is structured, the TCI allows states great flexibility in how to spend the money. According to Kate Johnson, chief of the Green Building and Climate Branch of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment, “each state will determine what makes the most sense for them in terms of making investments in cleaner transportation. So, in a city like Washington, DC, that might look different than it would in a state that has more rural communities.”

Jurisdictions can choose a mix of public transit, walking and biking infrastructure, electric vehicles, teleworking, and other elements such as affordable housing near transit.

Because DC and regional counties and cities in Maryland and Virginia often act together, and nowhere more so than with transportation, this region has a particular incentive to collaborate in how the jurisdictions spend their TCI money. “Within TCI, DC is unique in that so much of our transportation emissions are coming from outside of our boundaries,” said Johnson. Bast pointed to a history of “Maryland, Virginia, and the District coordinating and collaborating together on everything from transportation to public health.”

Bast sees Northern Virginia as a particular beneficiary of any congestion and clean air benefits from the TCI. He pointed to the area’s particulate pollution, noting that the region has been a nonattainment area for ozone. Reducing air pollution is thus a potent co-benefit of reducing emissions that contribute to climate change.

Ways to spend the money may change post-coronavirus

In the wake of the coronavirus, the way TCI money is spent is likely to evolve. The region — and, indeed, much of the planet — has increased telework exponentially and this is likely to continue well past the crisis, leading to emptier roads and cleaner skies. However, this depends on the post-pandemic response, and the TCI can help nudge the region toward fewer emissions. As DC DOEE director Tommy Wells put it, “COVID-19 is a game changer in teaching us what’s possible.”

Wells added that his office is drastically changing the way it’s doing business, realizing that teleworking is far more efficient than endless traveling. This means that the 500,000 people who used to come into and out of the city daily — with concomitant traffic jams and air pollution — may never return at the same level.

The next question is how TCI money could accelerate telework and other stay-at-home options. Bast sees improved broadband as a likely use of TCI funds, particularly in rural areas. Indeed, better internet access improves not just telework, but home healthcare appointments and education. It is an equity issue, since internet access remains uneven depending on one’s location and income level. The TCI could expand efforts to bridge the digital divide that keeps large segments of the public from fully participating in society.

Another trend the coronavirus could accelerate is reducing the primacy of cars on our streets. Wells asked, “Is this the opportunity to look at repurposing some of our rights of way to promote walking, bike travel, and other micromobility travel?” Wells cited potential changes such as removing a lane of motor vehicle traffic or reducing street parking to make way for walking and bicycling.

Public transit, meanwhile, has seen its ridership plummet. For instance, New York City’s subway ridership was down 87% on March 24. TCI money could help maintain transit to prepare for an eventual return whenever fears of the coronavirus, and of crowded public spaces, subside.

What if a state isn’t really serious about fighting climate change? Say, Maryland?

Giving states the freedom to choose how to invest their TCI money has one potential drawback, though. What if some governor picks projects that do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps for political reasons? To forestall this may take a combination of legislation and local vigilance from activist groups.

Mendelson and other advocates in Maryland are particularly concerned that Hogan’s or a subsequent administration could seek to use TCI funding in less beneficial ways.

Maryland has committed to reducing emissions by 40% from 2006 levels by 2030. The state’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions Act cites the TCI as part of a plan “to reduce GHG emissions in the region’s transportation sector, minimize the transportation system’s reliance on high carbon fuels, promote sustainable growth to address the challenges of [vehicle miles traveled] VMT, and help build the clean energy economy across the region.”

Yet Maryland is also proceeding with a project to widen the Capital Beltway along with I-270, which could undercut the TCI goals. Governor Larry Hogan is using the TCI to “soften criticism” while “promoting massive polluting projects like the I-495 and I-270 expansion,” Mendelson argued.

Ben Grumbles of the Maryland Department of Environment defended road widening and its climate impacts in a 2019 Board of Public Works meeting: “If you relieve the congestion, you’re going to see some improvements in the right trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions, including with this large project.” He also emphasized that road widening is only “part of a broader strategy that relies not just on roads, but on transit-oriented development, on electric vehicles.”

Yet critics believe road widening will do the opposite, drawing more cars onto the highways that will only lead to new congestion, a phenomenon known as induced demand. Grumbles cited a study that increasing vehicle speed from 20 mph to 50 mph means a 28% decrease in emissions. However, the Maryland Sierra Club contacted an author of the study who said that it “should not be used to suggest environmental benefits” from a road widening project.

Multiple studies have shown that adding lanes only results in additional traffic, with highways soon returning to the earlier congestion level. For instance, a 2019 paper from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute concludes that “Road expansion that reduces congestion in the short term attracts additional peak-period trips until congestion once again reaches a level that limits further growth.”

People tend toward more and longer trips to take advantage of the new lanes. Adding lanes can also increase traffic on nearby roads as cars access the newly available lanes. In the longer run, the new roads stimulate sprawling development, with new destinations leading to additional vehicle miles traveled, and pollution.

The project to widen the Beltway and I-270 would not use TCI funds. Still, some fear that with the state government’s current position that road widening is good for the environment, it could direct future TCI money to projects that might be counterproductive when it comes to reducing emissions.

To forestall this in Maryland, delegates Marc Korman and Kumar Barve have introduced House Bill 1526, which “would collect input from the public through community engagement sessions and a community advisory subcommittee to help develop recommendations on where the funding could go,” said Mendelson. She pointed to a similar existing law for RGGI.

The legislature did not pass HB 1526 in the 2020 session which ended March 18, but if the TCI becomes a reality, this is likely to continue as a major issue for advocates in years to come. Similar efforts may appear in other states, if people are concerned that shifting leadership in various states could lead to other changes in transportation priorities.